…A support system — Founders who run successful startups must have support. Being an entrepreneur is all-consuming and the advice of building a support system that gets it, given to me by my friend and fellow female founder, Marisol (founder of Tiny Kitchen Treats), saved me.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Allison Klein.
Allison Klein is the Founder of Rose & Rex, which is an online children’s play resource offering curated content and a selection of elegantly designed toys that promote imaginative play. While in graduate school at Bank Street College of Education where she earned a dual M.S.ED degree in Early Childhood and Childhood Education, Allison studied the importance of imaginative play on early childhood development and later founded Rose & Rex in 2016. Recently named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list as a leader in the e-commerce category, Allison is passionate about making sure that all children have the right to play and embrace experiential learning opportunities.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
The idea for Rose & Rex emerged while I was teaching in a private school in NYC and attending graduate school at Bank Street College of Education. Many of my students’ parents viewed play and learning as opposites, rather than deeply connected complements, and questioned its importance in the classroom. Once I explained how essential it was and parents began to see the academic and emotional strides their children were making by learning through play, I knew that I wanted to start a larger conversation about our culture’s approach to learning. Many people simply don’t know why play is so important for young children and that’s the reason I created Rose & Rex.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I fell in love with the imagination and creativity my students brought into the classroom when play was connected to learning. After observing how play could organically support children’s social, cognitive, emotional and physical development — and that playtime was rapidly getting cut from school curriculums — I wanted to help the families in my classroom truly understand the value of play and introduce play-based learning at home. I started to look for websites and companies that sold open-ended educational toys and could not find what I was looking for at one store so I started curating toy lists for parents in my class. These lists were a huge hit and I realized that there was a gap in the market for an “informational toy store,” which led to my “aha moment” that I could create a business curating toys to support holistic development.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
My mom was a special education teacher who deeply believed in play-based learning, so the values of imagination, inquiry and innovation that are the heart of Rose & Rex have been ingrained in me for most of my life.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
On the surface, we are a toy store, but what makes us different is that we are actually so much more than that! We are a one-stop destination for all things play-based learning and positive parenting. We aim to take the concept of a toy store, which many people think of as frivolous, and explain why toys and play matter. The toys are a tool for a larger conversation about learning and play-based education. When someone buys a toy from us we want them to think “wow, this is a very cool toy” but we also want them to understand why our team of educators selected it and how it can be used to support their child’s social, emotional and cognitive development. We are not at all like a typical toy store on the market that sells plastic, mass produced items but rather, we are a brand that offers a curated assortment of elegantly designed items for littles along with classes and resources that enhance childhood development through play.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I deeply believe that every child has the right to play in a healthy world, which is why I created, Play It Forward, Rose & Rex’s social initiative. We take a three-pronged approach to giving: monetary and product donations, volunteering our time, and providing mentorship and learning opportunities. Through Play It Forward, we have donated more than 105,000 dollars to non-profit organizations that support children and families.
For example, during the 2020 holiday season we partnered with Welcome Baby, a non-profit that provides pregnant women living near the poverty line with all the crucial supplies her infant needs in the first four weeks of life. Through educational programming, volunteering and sales initiatives, we were able to donate 20,000 dollars to support mothers during the pandemic. We also collaborated with Royal Jelly Harlem to create limited edition Doll-And-Me Mask sets and imaginative Mask & Crown Sets in signature Ankara textiles which enabled us to support a woman-run small business during critical times. In these moments of transition and uncertainty, our goal was to invite little ones to explore mask-wearing through imaginative play to support social and emotional growth. 5 dollars from each combination set purchase is donated to WomenOne, a non-profit devoted to creating positive change in the lives of women and girls globally through access to quality education. We’ve also been able to support many other important charitable organizations through our Play It Forward platform including Alex’s Lemonade Stand, Children’s Museum of the East End, Pajama Program, Alliance of Moms, Surfrider Foundation, Second Chance Toys and The Bank Street Center on Culture, Race & Equity amongst others.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Curiosity– As a teacher I spent a lot of time talking about the importance of process over product and worked to help my students develop a process of inquiry. In my own life, I do the same. I have always been a very curious person. I want to understand how things work and why things work. This has helped me learn how to ask questions, problem solve and most importantly, truly listen.
Zest — At the end of the day, (and despite challenging moments!), running a toy store is downright fun! I try to bring a joyful spirit to everything we do and to every challenge we face. Running a business is hard and being able to approach it with delight, gratitude and optimism is what has propelled me forward, enabled me to be all-in and helped maintain perspective.
Empathy– An ability and desire to put myself in other people’s shoes has helped me develop real connections with my team and with our customers, which has enabled us to create an authentic and engaged community.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
I listened to the advice to only focus on one thing at a time for way too long. About two years into the business, I wanted to start creating our own product line but got the advice that if I stopped focusing on our curated marketplace that we would confuse our customers and lose focus. Once I stopped listening to this advice and worked on building out different prongs of the business at once, we experienced significant growth. While staying connected to your mission is important, I think it is very possible to grow different areas of your business with intention at the same time.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
When we first began, I stored our inventory in my old childhood bedroom and shipped everything myself. During our first holiday season we had our first real uptick in orders and I was so overwhelmed. I would sit on the floor amidst boxes, crinkle paper and confetti after spending eight hours a day packing boxes and wonder what I had gotten myself into and how I was going to make this work. Looking back it’s a great memory but in the moment I didn’t know how I was going to get through it!
Overall, there were so many challenges when I first started. Initially, when I shared my concept I faced a lot of resistance to the idea that we were building a modern business that would specialize in open-ended, “old-school” toys as opposed to tech toys. Encouraging people to expand their definition of how children learn was an early hurdle. We also had to challenge some existing beliefs in the toy space. For example, we don’t categorize our toys in traditional ways — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked, “Where are your girl toys?” We purposefully don’t define toys by gender, which led to some interesting challenges and conversations early on.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
I really believe in our company mission and that children have the power to shape and inform our world. I want to play a part in helping people understand the power of play-based learning and the power of prioritizing the social and emotional health of our children.
One strategy that I use to stay driven is taking time daily to check in with myself through tools like a quick meditation or deep breathing exercise. When you are growing a business there are so many voices and opinions that constantly surround you, which can make it challenging to remain confident in yourself and your vision. I have always relied on my intuition to keep me connected to my “north star” in business and to create a network of people whose perspective I really trust. I make sure I take time to really check in with myself during challenging moments or before making big decisions.
I also think that finding a network to support you is really important. I work with an incredible business coach and make sure I stay connected to other female entrepreneurs who can support me through challenging times and who understand the realities of startup life.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
When you are a founder there are really high highs and really low lows and trying to stay level throughout it all is a constant work in progress. One tip I received that has really helped me is to allow yourself to fully experience the highs and the lows so you can internalize lessons learned and then move on. There is a tendency as a founder to continually move the yardstick but it’s important to take time to celebrate achievements as they come. Similarly, it’s also important to sit with failures when they happen so you can extract meaning from them and then put them fully behind you.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
It’s important for a founder to consider all of the types of funding that are available. Sometimes there’s a misconception that the only two options are bootstrapping or going the VC route. In reality there are a lot of possibilities available from getting a small business loan to working with angel investors to crowdfunding.
Three things a founder should consider when deciding whether to fundraise or bootstrap are: 1.) What will the money be used for (inventory, advertising, team)? 2.) Am I strictly looking for capital or am I also looking for a strategic partner? 3.) What are my growth and scaling objectives?
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
From my experience the five things you need to create a highly successful startup are:
1.) A focus on creating community — One of the main differences between a successful startup and an unsuccessful startup is whether you have either a community of people who understand your brand (and are loyal to it!) or just a group of customers who buy your product.
2.) A team of collaborators — In my view, collaboration is essential in creating the best possible product. I have an incredible team of people behind me and every decision is made through discussion, debate and countless hours of conversation, which ultimately challenges me and results in the best final product.
3.) Being clear about the problem that you’re trying to solve — As a teacher, I found myself constantly answering parents’ questions about why play was important to their child’s learning. I saw an opportunity to provide parents with a new type of toy shop that would also help them understand the value of play-based learning. Understanding the problem you are trying to solve helps you stay focused and clear.
4.) Flexibility — When we talk about early childhood learning and essential life skills at Rose and Rex, the skill of “perseverance” comes up a lot — that is, the willingness to try multiple solutions. It’s just as important when you’re running a business! You have to be flexible when challenges or unforeseen turns occur for the business and be willing to pivot, adjust and move forward.
5.) A support system — Founders who run successful startups must have support. Being an entrepreneur is all-consuming and the advice of building a support system that gets it, given to me by my friend and fellow female founder, Marisol (founder of Tiny Kitchen Treats), saved me. It’s so important to find people who can support you through the inevitable moments of fear and self-doubt. For me, connecting with other women through my journey has been the most rewarding and impactful part of starting my business. The mentorship and friendship they have offered me is not only a key to the growth of my company but also to my sanity.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Failing to delegate! If you involve yourself in every aspect of your business without delegating, you will be unable to grow and scale down the road.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
Make time to decompress and disconnect every day and if you find that you aren’t sticking to it, add “time off” to your calendar (literally!). I talk a lot about the importance of prioritizing play and I am slowly getting better at taking my own advice. Whether that means going for a walk in Central Park, exploring new restaurants with my husband or taking fifteen minutes to meditate, I make sure that I disconnect from my screens daily. Running a business is a marathon, so to speak, and it’s essential to take care of yourself mentally and physically so that you have the stamina to grow your business and feel fulfilled by it instead of feeling like it is draining everything from you.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I am working to start a movement with Rose & Rex that will transform the way our world thinks about learning in the early years. Childhood is a time of wonder. Young children radiate curiosity that’s waiting to be nurtured. But today, most children lead schedule-focused lives. Rushing has replaced spontaneity. Results are valued over process. When we, as a society, embrace the idea that we need to support the holistic development of all children through things like play-based learning, positive parenting and mindfulness for families we will create a movement that changes the next generation.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Brene Brown because of her mission to help us all be more empathetic, vulnerable and real.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!